We love a good second-life career story—heck, Who What Wear co-founder Hillary Kerr started a whole podcast around the idea—so of course, Abbey Lee’s pivot from model to actress is one that stands out to us. Here is someone who, at the height of her fashion career, walking some of the biggest runways and starring in major campaigns, stepped away from it all to pursue a career in Hollywood. The fashion world’s loss was certainly the entertainment world’s gain, though, because without that move, we wouldn’t have Lee’s star power in projects like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Neon Demon, and HBO’s latest thriller masterpiece Lovecraft Country.
Written by Misha Green (Underground) and executive-produced by Jordan Peele, Lovecraft Country is a heart-pounding watch from start to finish featuring a timely narrative that follows a young Black man in the 1950s who sets out on a road trip through the Jim Crow South to find his father only to be confronted by horrors, monstrous and human alike, along the way. Lee is brilliant as Christina Braithwhite, the series’s striking antagonist who has you questioning her intentions at every turn. After watching the first few episodes, I wasn’t sure if I should be a fan or not, but Lee assures me that’s exactly the point. "Christina is going to be so tricky for some people to watch because she will force you to hate her, despise her, and be terrified of her and at the same time dare you to love her, like her, relate to her, and even respect her maybe.” Not to mention, the character also comes with a beautiful wardrobe, and I expect moments like her chic lavender skirt suit and matching pillbox hat and luxe riding cape will not go unnoticed either.
Speaking of standout fashion, Lee has always been one to shake up a carpet with her sartorial choices. And this fashion story is no different. We tasked Lee with showing us a bit of her personal style in self-shot imagery. Ahead, my exclusive interview with the actress plus a glimpse into her creative mind.
I got to see the first couple of episodes of Lovecraft Country before it premiered, which was such a tease. It’s a fantastic show. I can see how the original book and script would be a real page-turner. What were your initial thoughts when you read it?
I mean, there’s a lot going on in it, right? And there is so much that gets revealed in each episode. It’s a real twist like that. It’s so interesting because I signed on to do this project without reading all of the scripts. The way these high-end jobs go, a lot of the time you don’t actually get access to the script before agreeing to do it. When you've got people like HBO and Misha Green and Monkeypaw and Bad Robot asking you to do something, it's like, jump? Okay, how high? There are some creative people who you just put all of your faith into and that’s enough.
As I started reading the script, I mean, I had never read anything like it. I had never read anything so multifaceted. Just the twists that it has, the way that Misha and the other writers were able to take historical events and blend them into these current-day characters but not have these characters actually in those real events was insane to me. And there are so many elements. You have fantasy; you have family; you have horror; you have thriller; you have special-effects work and magic. The script has everything. There’s nothing missing.
Jordan Peele is an executive producer and a thriller mastermind. I have to imagine he was a big selling point for the project.
Oh absolutely! He is so prolific in our time. He completely combusted everyone’s minds when he came out with Get Out, you know? He has really tested audiences to take in cinema differently. And what an honor to get to be, in part, accepted [by him]. I’m not sure how the casting process goes, but with these big ones, everyone has to sign off, and to know that he signed off on me working on something that had his name on it is an honor.
Your character, Christina Braithwhite, is shrouded in a lot of mystery. You can’t really tell if she is good or bad. What were the conversations you had with creator Misha Green prior to filming?
Well, I think one of the main themes—well, there are a lot of themes it touches on—but I think one of the main themes it touches on is this idea of good and bad and what is actually good and what is actually bad. And isn’t it true that the terror and the beauty of life is that our morals are not objective? There is really no right and wrong. Christina, on the one hand, is seemingly this kind of manipulative and aggressive woman who plays monopoly with the lives of these Black people and uses her privilege to get what she wants, and at the same time, she is also similar to them in the sense that she has been brought up in the patriarchal community and world during the 1950s.
And she, like all of the other characters, is trying to liberate herself from that, free herself from her own oppressions, get love, get respect, and find a way to feel like she belongs. The way in which she gets those things is questionable, but her intentions are very human. A lot of the time I would query Misha on why is Christina is doing this when she feels like this? How can she do this to this person when she says she cares for them? I would get all wound up trying to understand these things in doing my character work. One of the things Misha said a lot about Christina is she wants you to have what you want. She wants to have what she wants. She’s about that. Whatever goes, goes. And there is something very liberating in that, and Misha really gave me permission to run with this idea of Christina, on one hand, being so hungry for power and at the same time not really giving a fuck. It was such a provocative role to take on because of that. It was so much fun, but it was also infuriating because there was so much about this woman where I was like she is void of a conscience! She just does whatever she wants!
But as an actor, you really have to empathize with that person and their actions, which seems difficult at times.
I really do believe that that is one of the most important things that an actor must set themselves out to do, is to find the humanity in whomever they are playing without judgement. You cannot judge your characters. You can outside of the work, you don’t have to agree with a decision your character makes, but that can’t come into your conscience while you are working. You must find a way to relate to them personally, so you can then put them on a screen and have someone sitting there watching like fuck, I know what she’s about. Fuck, I feel that, I respond to that, I relate to that. Christina is going to be so tricky for some people to watch, because she will force you to hate her, despise her, and be terrified of her, and at the same time dare you to love her, like her, relate to her, and even respect her maybe. And that’s what I love about her the most, she is just so complicated and you will just hate to love her. It’s one of those roles where I’m in each episode in a different way, but I will say the last couple of episodes are quite big, so keep watching until the end.
Christina has a beautiful wardrobe. Did you get an opportunity to collaborate with the show’s costume designer Dayna Pink on the direction of her style?
Oh yeah. Dayna is really collaborative and so is Misha, so it was very much a three-way relationship. All three of us were in a zone. I would come with character ideas, like the way that [Christina] wants to feel when she goes to a certain setting, because we all do that. Depending on who we’re going to be with or what we’re getting done, we dress a specific way. So sometimes it would be like what would Christina choose, how does Christina want to feel in those moments and what would she choose to wear. And then Dayna would figure out how that corresponds to the era they are in and how that corresponds to the money that Christina has. And then Misha a lot of the time would be taking care of what the shot is going to look like and does the color work? It was very much a three-way thing and about finding the poise and power in Christina. She is not a housewife and she has fought her entire life not to be a housewife, and so she doesn’t dress like a ‘50s housewife. She is not all fun and boppy like a lot of women in the ‘50s. She doesn’t have big skirts and flats and bows in her hair. She was very regal, she was serious, she was expensive, she was also a little masculine.
I love hearing about that process! Looking at your acting resume, you are no stranger to the action/adventure/sci-fi narrative. What about that genre appeals to you?
I think I appeal to the genre more than it appeals to me. It’s so interesting. When you put yourself out there in the industry and in the beginning you are just sort of going for everything and figuring out how you fit and where you place and what do you have access to, it’s not really as simple as deciding what you want to be and just getting it. Sometimes you find out that how you see yourself is actually not how the industry sees you. I definitely have found that because of my strange looks, because I think there’s something kind of alien-ish about the way I look—I’m very tall, I’m not classic looking, and I’m not hyper sexy—there’s a strangeness to my appearance that attracts those types of films. I also play villains a lot. I very rarely book protagonists. I’m quite often the antagonist, which is a better word, I really shouldn’t use villain. I don’t know what that’s about. It’s probably that I’ve never been afraid to tap into the dark side of my life, and I have had quite a life, so I think that probably resonates.
In previous interviews, you’ve talked about the importance of being able to express yourself creatively. What were some creative outlets you explored during quarantine? Did you discover new interests or hobbies?
The first few months of COVID were incredibly confronting. There was an entire shift in the concept of reality, and like everyone, I was on a really intense roller coaster that felt at times exciting and other times terrifying. But I just wanted to stay on it, and so if the germ of creativity was alive, I would pursue it. It came out in all sorts of ways. I paint and draw and write, so it was a combination of those things, but you know, some days were so profoundly heavy and dark that I just needed to stay afloat. I was very much alone like a lot of people, and as mammals, that’s not always easy. So creativity was not something I tried to enforce; it was something I gave space to. The nature of my creativity is incredibly unpredictable. It can be so alive that I lose all sense of space and time, and to have the space to dive in there fully was often remarkable. And other times, it was dead in the water. It’s been a real trip.
Since this is for Who What Wear, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk to you about style. The industry was such a big part of your early career, but how would you describe your relationship to fashion now?
It’s such a strange question given isolation because right now, I’m in a pair of underwear and that’s it. I haven’t really been styling it up, you know? But I used to really pull out some numbers. I went through so many phases of figuring out how I wanted to express myself. I was obsessed with different eras and different styles, and I really treated my body like a blank canvas. I just went mad with style and loved to go to markets and find things and figure it out. I really love to express myself through the way that I dress, you know, with my piercings and my hair colors, and it’s just become so much simpler now. All of that outward expression of who I am I kind of let go of, and there are very simple things that have stuck. I will never stop loving the ’90s. So even when I’m just in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, there is something that feels ’90s about it. I can’t help but be drawn to that era. But it’s just more simplified. It’s a lot more sophisticated and cleaner than it used to be. I don’t really like rummaging through trash bins in vintage stories. I just don’t get any enjoyment out of it anymore. I guess it’s gotten a little more expensive in that I like things that are made really well and really fine fabrics and things that fit me better. I don’t want to try and cut anything or squeeze into it. I guess in conclusion, my relationship to fashion has just simplified a lot.
What have been some of the mainstays in your wardrobe throughout the years?
I have a mid-thigh leather jacket and a very ’90s straight, not like a bomber, but like a leather blazer, that I just love. I carry it with me everywhere; it doesn’t matter what temperature it is. And I always have a big pair of black boots. At the moment, I have a pair of Saint Laurent black boots. I always have a crucifix necklace and a pair of hoops. You know, we all need some hoops! I would say those are my staples.
We’re starting to see some interesting changes in the fashion industry due to COVID, especially around fashion week. What do you think the future of the industry looks like?
I want some fucking models with some thighs! I keep hearing this word that is being used, diversity, in terms of size and race and gender, and I just don’t buy it. I see the token diverse person thrown in most [runway] shows, but for the most part, I really feel like all the high-fashion brands still have the same underweight, androgynous girls on the runway. And honestly, when is that actually going to change? It’s detrimental to so many people’s health what the industry is continuously putting out there. And they are the apex for what a woman should look like. I know there have been changes, there have been some small changes toward something a little different, but for the most part, I don’t think it has changed enough, especially on runways. On average, the first time you get on a runway is 16, and you are still on a runway at 25, but you are supposed to look the same? It’s just bullshit.
We’re seeing more self-shot pieces, like this story, for example. What are you hoping to showcase with the photos for this feature?
I do think I have a visual eye. I have a creative eye, and it’s a fun little project to be given to showcase, in part, my imagination. So maybe I can give a little hint as to what goes on up there in my head.
Lovecraft Country airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Jessica Baker is Who What Wear’s Executive Director, Entertainment, where she ideates, books, writes, and edits celebrity and entertainment features.
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